This Sunday night, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Oscar watchers will be mooning over their favorite celebrities, frowning about the fashion world’s latest, and discussing the legacy of Jim Crow on the livelihoods of today’s domestic workers. That’s not a combination we see very often, but it represents the culmination of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) investment in the cultural moment opened up by “The Help.” Their experience is instructive for those who wonder as much about relating to the country’s popular culture as about changing its policies.
The film has been heavily critiqued as an excessively soft and beautiful view of Jim Crow. Historians have noted that a domestic worker who baked feces into a pie and served it up to her white employer would hardly have been allowed to live, much less carry on about her business with the collusion of a key member of the employer’s family. Whatever the film’s shortcomings, anyone with an ounce of strategic sense would have taken full advantage of this opening in the popular culture, and NDWA is not short on strategic sense.
But their intervention did more than take advantage of a cultural moment—it shaped that moment to mitigate against the potential negative effects on a national audience. From an organizer’s perspective, there is a danger embedded in stories of triumph over segregationists, especially a story as prettily presented as this one. Viewers develop little appreciation for the grit of struggle, imagine that the era was less horrifying than it really was, and thus imagine that ending such practices was both more easily achieved and more permanently effective than the struggle’s reality. NDWA’s intervention around “The Help” created a chance that viewers would walk away inspired to take action on the unfinished justice agenda of the Civil Rights Movement, rather than crowing about how much things have changed for the better.
It is lucky, then, that the Alliance’s members found important things to like in the film. The Alliance’s Director Ai-jen Poo noted that the film provided a rare portrayal of domestic workers in ways that allowed them complexity, humanity and individuality, and further related very closely to the portrayal of the relationship between workers and the children they raised.
“It felt like that dimension of their story was being told for the first time,” said Poo. “The relationship between the kids and the workers was portrayed in a very deep way, and our members appreciated that.”
The film’s focus on African American domestic workers gave the organization a link to the core of their issue. Domestic workers are excluded from parts of the National Labor Relations Act as a result of compromises FDR’s administration made with Southern politicians in the 1930’s to protect the interests of segregationists. “The movie allowed us to talk about that history,” said Poo, “and how the lack of respect that domestic workers have in this country is tied to the history of slavery and Jim Crow.” That history is at the crux of the lesson guide the Alliance designed for self-organized Oscar parties.
The film came out just as the Alliance’s own star was rising. In 2010, they won the first statewide Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in New York. A year later they had won the introduction of a similar bill in California, as well as the first resolution on the rights of domestic workers by the International Labor Organization, soon followed by a move to include domestic workers in the overtime regulations of national labor law. The California bill, which has passed the state Assembly and the Senate Labor Committee, now needs to be brought to a floor vote in the Senate. The Department of Labor regulations are in process, but need consistent pushing to get them finalized. This weekend’s activities will drive people to sign the Change.org petition about California and send letters to the Department of Labor.
Connecting with “The Help” has already helped raise the visibility of this constituency and pressure on the relevant policymakers. The organization started by collaborating with Creative Counsel to make a simple but beautiful video called “Meet Today’s Help,” which urged viewers to get involved in the California policy campaign. “Meet Today’s Help” has had almost 9,000 views on YouTube. That project gave NDWA its first experience using YouTube and social media distribution.
In October, Participant Media, which produced “The Help,” supplemented its own storytelling campaign with a series of short videos featuring domestic workers, with links to the policy campaigns. Those videos have been viewed some 100,000 times. Participant has a long history of producing films about social issues (“Food Inc,” “Chicago 10,” “An Inconvenient Truth”) and creating educational and action campaigns.
“Often institutional change doesn’t happen until the majority of the popular culture demands it,” said Liana Schwarz, senior vice president of social action and advocacy at Participant Media. “Our campaigns are some of the building blocks that add onto that larger demand.”
Those videos helped attract the actor Harold Perrineau, to whom NDWA’s entertainment industry consultants Fuel Change reached out. Perrineau’s grandmother was a domestic worker, and he and his wife are employers. They hosted a party in which Hollywood kids drew pictures of their relationships with their nannies. Some 600 people delivered those pictures to the State Assembly during the Children’s March on January 24.
In January Octavia Spencer won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Spencer, whose publicist has been receiving weekly communication from NDWA for months, quoted Martin Luther King on the dignity of labor while evoking the situation of “domestic workers, then and now.” NDWA thanked her on Twitter and sent out a press release. The quote was covered in two dozen major media outlets, including US Weekly, OK, and the industry site IMDB, as well as Reuters and the Los Angeles Times.
Participant Media gives NDWA credit for learning quickly. “What NDWA does well is give a platform to stories we don’t hear very often,” said Schwarz. “It introduces and personalizes information that is perhaps very new to a large audience, and helps connect the dots for our audience about how policy relates to the stories we’re hearing.”
Arguably, NDWA already had a large audience through the coverage of its political work, but it did not have a large popular audience, that is, an audience of people who would normally have little invested in the issues of domestic workers. The degree to which that translates into petition signatures or Senate votes remains to be seen, but even if those gains are modest, the new visibility of domestic workers has been dramatic, and it will make a difference in getting people to listen as the work continues.
“Social change happens through changed hearts and minds, changed behavior and changed policy,” said Poo. “All that is connected. Doing this work around the film allowed us to tap into the way in which pop culture has a broad impact on the imagination.”
Domestic workers will certainly need all those openings and more to move their most ambitious agenda—nothing less than ending the oppression of domestic workers, and thereby putting to rest a small portion of a legacy from the days of slavery. As Poo said, “It’s this generation’s job to reverse that.”